Before we jump into some myths let’s make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to what exactly cholesterol is.
Myth #1: “Cholesterol” is cholesterol
Cholesterol is a molecule, not a substance that sits around in your body like fat around your waist. It’s transported through your bloodstream by carriers made of fat (lipid) and proteins called lipoproteins.
It is actually these carriers, that it is bound to, that are more important that the total amount of cholesterol you have.
So cholesterol is just one component of a compound that floats around your blood. There are two types of lipoproteins carry cholesterol to and from cells.
- HDL: High Density Lipoprotein (AKA “good” cholesterol) that “cleans up” some of those infamous “arterial plaques” and transports cholesterol back to the liver.
- LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein (AKA “bad” cholesterol) that transports cholesterol from the liver (and is the kind found to accumulate in arteries and become easily oxidized hence their “badness”).
And yes, it’s even more complicated than this. Each of these categories is further broken down into subcategories which can also be measured in a blood test
So “cholesterol” isn’t simply cholesterol – it has very different effects on your body depending on which other molecules it’s bound to in your blood and what it’s actually doing there.
Myth #2: Cholesterol is bad
Despite being associated with many health issues, cholesterol is very important to overall health.
It is necessary for your body to produce sex hormones (e.g. estrogen and testosterone). It’s involved in making vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun so we can absorb calcium. And it plays a crucial role in making some of the substances we need to digest food, like bile, which helps us absorb dietary fats. Not to mention that it’s incorporated into the membranes of your cells.
Talk about an important molecule!
The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA “total cholesterol”) isn’t nearly as important as how much of each kind you have in your blood.
While way too much LDL cholesterol as compared with HDL (the LDL:HDL ratio) may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease it is absolutely not the only thing to consider for heart health.
Myth #3: Eating cholesterol increases your bad cholesterol
Most people think that we get cholesterol from the food we eat. But your body actually produces cholesterol. Most of it is made in the liver.
In fact, most cholesterol medications block an enzyme in your liver called HMG Co-A reductase because that’s where it’s made!
What you eat does affect how much cholesterol your liver produces. For example, after a cholesterol-rich meal your liver doesn’t need to make as much. But it is not the whole story.
Myth #4: Your cholesterol should be as low as possible
As with almost everything in health and wellness there’s a balance that needs to be maintained. There are very few extremes that are going to serve you well. So the goal is not to get your cholesterol levels as low as possible.
While it is more common for people to have high cholesterol levels, there are some dangers if it is too low.
People with too-low levels of cholesterol have increased risk of other non-heart-related issues like certain types of cancers, depression and anxiety.
Myth #5: Drugs are the only way to get a good cholesterol balance
Don’t start or stop any medications without talking with your doctor.
While drugs do help to lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol, they don’t seem to be able to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol all that well.
Guess what does?
Nutrition and exercise, baby!
One of the most impactful ways to lower your cholesterol with diet is to eat a lot of fruits and veggies. And I mean a lot, like up to 10 servings a day. Every day.
Other dietary and lifestyle changes that can help are to exercise, lose weight, stop smoking and eat better quality fats. That means fatty fish, avocados and olive oil. Ditch those over-processed hydrogenated “trans” fats.
The bottom line:
The science of cholesterol and heart health is complicated and we’re learning more every day. The bottom line is that you may not need to be as afraid of it as you have been. And there’s a lot you can do from a nutrition and lifestyle perspective to improve your cholesterol level.
And here’s a great heart-healthy, creamy salad dressing recipe that will make eating more salads much more enjoyable!
Heart Healthy Ranch Dressing
2 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
1 cloves fresh garlic
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 cup full fat coconut milk
1 tsp dried dill (if you don’t like dill you can add basil)
1/2 tsp sea salt
fresh ground pepper- to taste
dash of cayenne pepper
Instructions: Place all dressing ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until creamy.
Drizzle dressing on top of salad and enjoy!
Tip: Store extra in airtight container in the fridge. Will keep for two days due to the raw egg.
Over to you: Would you like to start implementing some dietary and lifestyle interventions to help improve your cholesterol level? Tell us in the comments what your key struggles for making some of these changes are…